Category Archives: Wine marketing

Want to know the next trends in wine? Follow your stomach

All across the globe, the wine industry is ringing in the new year with prognostications. Everyone has a crystal ball trying to nail down what the next big trends will be.
Sourced from the Library of Congress. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US expired

Some of these predictions bear fruit, while others are just throwing spaghetti at the wall. But in an industry where it takes vines at least three years to be productive and another 1 to 3 to get wine to the market, wineries and retailers need to be a step ahead of the trends.

The difference between success and failure in the wine industry is to be more proactive than you are reactive.

That is what makes trends and prediction articles worth reading–even if you have to take them with a grain of salt.

One recent article by Andy Young of The Shout, an online news service covering Australia, caught my eye. While written from an Aussie perspective, these predictions of Cellarmasters’ Joe Armstrong do hold intriguing relevance to the American market.

First up, Armstrong says that “Cava is the new Prosecco”.

“Our palates are getting fatigued with Prosecco’s fruit-forwardness, so Cava’s dry and biscuity characters are welcome flavours,” he said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

It wasn’t so much the preference for Cava over Prosecco that surprised me. I’ve been bearish myself about the Prosecco market. I expect its bubble to soon burst as over-expansion and poor quality examples flood the market. Yet it’s not overproduction that has Armstrong and Young seeing Spanish Cava poaching Prosecco’s market share in Australia.

It’s a craving for something drier and less fruity.

Young and Armstrong also predict growth in rosé wine–particularly domestic rosé. But it is not wannabe influencers and #YesWayRosés hashtags that’s fueling its growth. Instead, domestic Aussie rosés are moving towards a style that has been a trademark of French rosé long before anyone made their first duckface on Instagram.

“Due to the popularity of French rosé, more Aussie rosés are being made in that typical, French dry and savoury style. The rise of domestic, dry rosé is a win for consumers as they are affordable and of great quality,” Armstrong said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

Lanzavecchia Essentia

More people definitely need to get on the Italian wine wagon with wines like this crazy delicious Piemontese blend out drinking bottle more than twice its price.

Additionally, Armstrong sees Australian consumers gravitating towards wines coming out of Spain, Portugal and Italy–countries that have been popular picks with prognosticators in the US and UK as well. These folks also see in their crystal balls an uptick of interest in wines from European countries as part of what’s being dubbed “The Year Of The Curious Wine Drinker.”

Why?

Despite the vast diversity of grape varieties and terroirs, there is a common theme among these European wines.

They tend to be dry.
They tend to be savory.

Kind of like the food that we’re eating now.

Mama, this ain’t the Coca-Cola generation anymore

In the US, there is an old marketing adage that Americans “talk dry, but drink sweet.”

For many years, there has undoubtedly been truth to that saying. Mega-corps have sold millions of cases sneaking residual sugar into “dry wines.” But it’s not only faux dry wines that have caught Americans’ fancy. This country was also at the forefront of the recent Moscato boom that is just now starting to wane.

Photo from : The Ladies' home journal1948. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain with no known copyright restrictions

Margaret dear, you know that is shitty stemware to be serving your Sagrantino in.

And why is it waning?

For the same reason that Pepsi and Coke are seeing declining soda sales.

We’re moving away from sweeter flavors towards sourer (acidity), more exotic and savory ones.

Part of it is health consciousness–with the upcoming Generation Z being particularly “sugar conscious.”

But it is also driven by a desire for balance. (Sounds familiar?)

Food and wine, wine and food. Tomayto, Tomahto

In New World regions like Australia and the US, the association of wine and food hasn’t been as culturally ingrained as it has been in Europe. But that’s changing.

However, you don’t need to have wine with food to understand that our taste in cuisine goes hand in hand with our tastes in wine. When we craved sweet, boring dishes, we ate TV dinners and jello pops.  We drank with them Blue Nun, Riunite and high alcohol reds.

Now that our tastes are going more savory and exotic, what are we eating?

Mushrooms
Sourdough
Chickpeas
Grilled Meats
Cauliflower
Avocado toast
Dry-aged poultry and pork
Turmeric
Pumpkin

Among many other things.

The Takeaway

Wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The beverage that goes into our body has to appeal to the same eyes that see our food, the same noses that perceive aromas and flavors and the same taste buds that respond to umami, sour and sweet flavors.

Wineries that cater to the tastes of the past are going find themselves left in the past. You don’t need a canary to see that American (as well as Australian) tastes are changing.

Likewise, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict what the next big wine trends will be. You just need to follow your stomach.

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Winery Tasting Notes Done Right

JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards did a terrific write-up on the problem with winery tasting notes. If you own a winery, this is a must read. Tasting notes are certainly one of the necessary evils of selling wine.

Photo by Simon A. Eugster. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Next time you’re at a wine shop, look at back labels. Try to count how many times you see the words chocolate, mocha or cacao used in tasting notes.

For wine students, particularly those studying for Unit 1 of the WSET Diploma on the Business of Wine, it’s helpful to critically examine the usefulness of these notes.

Whether on the back label or website, we should ask if tasting notes really help consumers in selecting wine. Do flourished descriptions of flavors, bouquet and mouthfeel help distinguish one winery’s wine from its thousands of competitors?

Do they answer the important question of “Why should I buy this wine?”

Probably not.

In his post, Williams notes the usual results of these tasting notes.

Enter the wine marketer. We interject ourselves into the equation by telling you what to do, and how you’re going to do it. If I say, “now this Cabernet has a really nice chocolate note,” there are three potential outcomes that I think are the most likely:

1.) The power of suggestion is very strong. If I say chocolate, you taste chocolate.
2.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. Since I am speaking from a position of authority, you decide you’re doing something wrong, and slowly nod your head in faux agreement.
3.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. You are suddenly aware that your eyebrow is twitching because you’ve just realized that I must be full of $*%#. You slowly nod your head in faux agreement.

None of these are good outcomes.
— JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

What are the benefits of telling consumers that a wine has notes of chocolate? Sure, there may be a halo effect on the wine from positive associations with chocolate. That may help someone pick up a bottle. But there is also a risk of negative associations backfiring too. Back in my retail days, I once had a customer get turned off by a wine described as chocolaty because she was lactose intolerant. (Yeah, I know.) But you get the same issues with virtually every descriptor.

If you think of the tasting note, on a website or bottle, as valuable real estate—are overly common (and, ultimately, subjective) words like “chocolate” truly worth that space?

Putting That Real Estate To Work.

Photo by Aromaster. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Some winery tasting notes feel like they threw darts at the Aroma Wheel and wrote down what they hit. I once had a California red blend with a back label describing flavors of orange blossom, fig, hazelnut, chocolate (*ding*) and hay.

Consumers pick up bottles to read back labels and will often visit wineries’ websites to buy wine or find more details. This space is valuable. Extremely so.

As much attention and care that a winery puts into crafting stylish front labels and web-page design, should be put towards their tasting notes as well. Wineries need to leverage this space.

Writing the same boring tasting notes populated with platitudes and whatever descriptors they get from the Wine Aroma Wheel is not going to cut-it. Wineries have to give consumers a reason to take home their wine over the multitudes of other bottles being described with those same tasting notes.

A tasting note should convey what sets one “balanced, Bordeaux-style wine [that] coats the palate with a velvety richness and fine tannin structure” apart from every other balanced, velvety rich and finely tannic wine.

Otherwise, it is just blowing the same useless marketing BS that virtually every other bottle is blowing. Where is the consumer being helped in this?

Outside the Bottle — In the Consumer’s Cart

Williams highlights a brilliant approach that Kiona uses in crafting their tasting notes. They categorize their “wine speak” into what relates to “Outside the Bottle” details and what pertains to the more vague and subjective “Inside the Bottle” experiences.

1.) Outside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that is interesting about a wine that happens outside the bottle. Vineyards, geography, growing philosophy, winemaking goals, winemaking process, blending process, etc.
2.) Inside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that the drinker experiences once the cork is pulled.

We make a concerted effort to talk about the “OtB” aspects of a wine only. This extends up and down our operation, including our website, our tech sheets, our tasting room collateral, our employee training and our general vernacular. In the rare circumstances where we dabble in “ItB” language, it’s almost always in generalities. You might read something along the lines of “fresh black fruit characteristic”, but never “brambly vine-ripened summer blackberries.” — JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

Kiona's Lemberger tasting note

Example of Kiona’s “Outside the Bottle” approach for their Lemberger.

Inside the bottle, almost all wine is the same–especially before a consumer pulls the cork. It has potential and possibilities but every wine is promising potential and possibilities.

However, what is outside the bottle makes the wine unique. It’s the people, the place, the story and craftsmanship that sets it apart from each and every other bottle.

That is real estate that pays for its space.

Examples of Tasting Notes That Work

On their website, Kiona has several examples where they use “Outside the Bottle” tasting notes to make their wines distinctive and interesting. One I particularly like is for their Lemberger shown above. This is a bloody hard wine to sell because of the name. But Kiona gives some intriguing history as well as details about what makes their Lemberger different from other domestic examples and Austrian Blaufränkisch.

Personality Not Platitudes
Upside Down Malbec's tasting note

I don’t know why but “Dead Poplar” sounds like an awesome vineyard name.

Upsidedown Wine by Seth & Audrey Kitzke note that their 2014 Gold Drop Malbec is made from one of the fastest growing varieties in Washington State. That piques curiosity. Why are people so excited about Washington Malbec? Maybe I should buy a bottle and find out.

The tasting note also shares that the wine has some Petit Verdot (another grape getting a lot of buzz) blended in to make it distinctive from other Malbecs. Additionally they highlight the small production (only 98 cases) and single vineyard sourcing. While it does have the typical big dark fruits and pepper descriptors of many other Malbecs, those notes act as side bars rather than the main feature.

For their 2016 Viognier, Serrano Wines injects a ton of personality into their tasting note by sharing that this wine was inspired by drinking Guigal’s Le Doriane Condrieu.

Instead of being grown with the typical cordon or guyot vine training methods that most domestic Viogniers use, Serrano points out that they’re using a special tee-pee (or eschalla) training common in Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. (Their website has pictures of this unique–and very labor intensive–vine training.)

While many consumers are not going to care much about vine training, Serrano’s tasting note works by highlighting why the consumer should care–i.e. why this bottle of Viognier is different from all the other options they have.

That is leveraging every bit of precious real estate to stand out from the pack.
Serrano Viognier tasting note

When evident care is put into crafting a great tasting note that tells a story, it tells the consumer that a lot of care went into crafting the wine as well.

Instead of being a “necessary evil”, tasting notes can be tools.

Wineries should follow the advice of JJ Williams of Kiona. They shouldn’t farm this task to marketing departments writing the same blathering blurbs. They need to think “outside the bottle” and use these notes to tell consumers their stories.

Of course, wineries will benefit by selling more wines. But consumers will benefit as well from better tasting notes.

Instead of standing in an aisle, reading label after label of fruit-forward, divinely complex, approachable and exceptionally food-friendly and layered aromas of black currant, blueberry and cherry [that] are accentuated by an authentic barrel bouquet of hazelnut, cocoa powder [ding], and dark roasted coffee, they actually get words that have value and meaning.

They get words that tell them something–about the people and place this wine comes from. Most importantly, they get answers to the question that all consumers have when they pick up a bottle.

Why should I buy this wine?

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Sip or Spit — Looking at Wine Predictions for 2019

This time of year, a lot of smart folks in the beverage industry lay down their cards to predict what major trends can be expected next year. As with pop culture and sports, these articles are fun to read but you don’t want to put too much stock put in them. (I mean, come on, you really thought Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would sign during the Winter Meetings?)

Photo by Randy OHC. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Sip or Spit? How seriously should we take these wine predictions for 2019?

Of course, the value of such predictions rests in the quality of the source. I’ve always found the folks at Wine Intelligence, a UK consulting and research firm, to be sharp tacks. So I ascribe a little more weight to their assessments than I do other sources. Still, while there were some thing from their Five Predictions for 2019 worth sipping, there were others I certainly spat out.

1.) Alcohol intake will continue to fall in developed world markets (Spit with a little sipping)

As I noted in my article The Kids Will Probably Be Alright — Looking at Generation Z Trends, I don’t buy into the idea of Gen Z as the “teetotaler generation”. It is far too early and too small of a sample size to make that assessment. For Christ-sakes, 95% of them are still under 21! I surely hope that most of them are teetotaling right now.

However, I do think that the trend of “Drinking Less, But Better” that we’re seeing in the Millennial generation will continue with Generation Z. Alcohol is expensive and is full of calories. It’s clear that my generation, and likely the following one, have been adopting the mindset that if we’re going to spend the money and calories on something, it better be worth it.

Which is a good thing and something that should serve as a curb to the idea that moderate consumption of alcohol (like wine) is incompatible with a healthy lifestyle. That “incompatibility” seems to be the crux of the scare reports of Generation Z and Millennials turning away from alcohol.

From keg stands to Brose´
Photo by ProjectManhattan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Ramen–the lifeblood of the broke Millennial. Also a great pairing for under $15 Cru Beaujolais and Chenin blanc.

Yeah, we might be turning away from weekend keggers, cheap jug wine sangrias, Smirnoff and Fireball jello shots, but what we’re turning to is more mindful moderate drinking. Younger generations, like myself, are not drinking for the sake of drinking. We’re looking for something more than just a buzz.

Growing up in the age of technology and easy access to knowledge, we’re aware of the risks of binge drinking. But we’re also aware of the benefits of moderation. Plus, our “foodie” nature is far more incline than past generations to embrace the role of a glass of wine in enhancing the pleasure of even everyday meals—like ramen noodles.

So while bulk and mass producers may have reasons to worry about the upcoming generations, I don’t think quality minded producers need to fret as much.

2.) Overall knowledge levels about the details of wine and where it comes from will decline (Spit)

This prediction is based on Wine Intelligence’s 2018 US Portraits report of wine consumers. I don’t have an extra $3500 to buy the full report and dive deep into what methodology led to that conclusion, but on the surface this doesn’t pass the “sniff test”.

When you look at other observations and reporting, the level of wine knowledge among the average consumer has never been higher. For one, enrollments in wine certification programs have been booming. Google “Wine Appreciation Class” and you’ll get over 34 million hits, confessing to a wide interest among consumers to learn more.

This is something that I touched on in my article It’s Raining Masters, about the influx of successful Master Sommelier candidates. (This was before the cheating scandal broke) We are in the midst of a golden age of wine knowledge.

Yet, somehow, we’re getting “wine dumber”?

Even the post’s author, Richard Halstead, acknowledges the counter-intuitiveness of his prediction.

Over the past couple of years we have started to see an interesting and counterintuitive trend. More people in more markets around the world are saying they care about wine, that the category is important to them, that they take their time when buying wine – sentiments which we bundle up into a collective measure called “involvement”. At the same time, overall objective knowledge about the category – understanding of grape varieties, countries of origin, regions, and so on – has been in decline: people know fewer things about wine any more. — Richard Halstead, Wine Intelligence, 12/12/2018

One theory they propose is smartphone reliance. That does makes some sense and has been debated in other contexts before. There is also the idea that the globalization of wine has brought more stuff to the table for the average consumer to know about.

More to Discover, More to Learn, More to Enjoy
Photo taken my self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Once pursued only by the wine trade, now more and more wine lovers are signing up for advance certifications like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)

It’s no longer Napa, Champagne, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot grigio. Now we’ve got Coonawarra, Franciacorta, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Chenin blanc and so much more.

I suppose when you consider how much more is out there to learn and explore, the average wine consumer’s “overall” grasp of details may go down.

But that is like comparing the “knowledge level” of a middle schooler with that of a college student. The former is exposed to far less. Of course, it is easier to “master” more of that knowledge within their little world. However, the later’s exposure to exponentially more gives the potential for even greater knowledge.

While I’m open to hearing more thoughts on the matter, there so much counter-intuitiveness about this prediction that I’ll remain skeptical now.

3.) Vegan wine will become a thing (Sip)

This I buy completely. It’s a topic that I explored earlier this year with my article What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines.

I have no doubt that we are going to see more wines labeled as “Vegan-friendly”. But I am concerned with the obsession over fining agents. Especially for people who adopt a Vegan-lifestyle for ethical reasons, it seems like a bigger quandary is to be had over viticultural practice like biodynamics that regularly employ the use of animal products. Furthermore, there are issues with what alternatives wineries may use to produce highly manipulated (though “Vegan-friendly”) wines.

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors. — What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines 2/25/2018

4.) Wine brands with sustained investment strategies will prosper at the expense of second-tier competitors (Sip)

Unfortunately, this is a sad reality of business. Branding often trumps quality and care. W. Blake Gray had a great article on Wine Searcher recently that highlights this as part of the Gloomy Outlook for Smaller Wineries.

Gray ended the article with a very ominous quote from Dale Stratton of Constellation Brands.

“The game is going to be stealing share,” Stratton said. “The pie is only as big as the pie is. The game is going to be stealing share from other places.”

Watch your pie, small wineries. Watch your pie. — W. Blake Gray, WineSearcher.com 12/7/2018

While not every winery can afford a fancy marketing department, it is imperative of every winery to focus on what makes them unique.

For the small winery competing against the big mega-corps, your “brand” is your story and all the tidbits that set you apart from the mass-produced wines that line supermarket shelves.

It’s simply not good enough just to make good wine. There are thousands of producers across the globe making wine as good, if not better, than yours. But what those wineries (and certainly what the big mega-corps) don’t have, is you and your story.

Finding ways to weave yourself into the narrative of your brand is only going to become more important for small wineries to succeed. That is one of the reasons why it is a shame that many wineries have abandoned or don’t know how to successfully use social media platforms like Twitter.

5.) A mainstream producer will introduce cannabis-infused wine (Sip and then toke)
Photo by Bogdan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Does cannabis have terroir? We’ll probably be discussing that over the next decade.

This is probably the surest bet that any prognosticator can make. For an industry that will happily dive into whiskey barrel aging and weird coffee-infused hybrid wines, you know that development is already well on its way towards releasing a cannabis-infused wine.

The only question is, who will be first? Gallo or Constellation Brands?

Gallo has been leading the way on a lot of these trends with their Apothic brand. They’re a solid contender and a likely choice. Part of the fun is guessing what they’ll call it. Apothic Blaze? Apothic Kush?

However, Constellation Brands does actually have its own investments in the cannabis industry to the tune of $4 billion.

I’d be more incline to wager on Constellation developing a stand-alone brand for cannabis-infused wine. But I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see them roll it out under an established label, like Robert Mondavi, to try to give this trend more legitimacy.

When that happens, be sure to pour one out for poor Robert spinning in his grave in St. Helena.

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Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano

Joe Wagner, with his Copper Cane Wines & Provision, has been one of the most successful wine producers of the 21st century. But that fame and success doesn’t shield him from the ire of lawmakers and Oregon wineries who feel he has been playing fast and loose with state and federal wine labeling laws.

Joe Wagner's Elouan

These producers, led by Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards, believe that Wagner’s wine labels confuse consumers and devalue the branding of Oregon. Wagner contends that he is being truthful about where the grapes are coming from and that his wines bring Oregon to the attention of more drinkers.

While the legal aspects of labeling will be debated and hashed out by government agencies (with so far Wagner and his labels losing the battle), I wanted to investigate the idea of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the image of the Oregon wine industry among consumers. To test that, I held a blind tasting featuring the offending Wagner wines against more traditional Oregon Pinot noirs.

I wanted to see if Wagner’s wines stood out and if there’s smoke behind this controversy erupting in Oregon.

The Background

Joe Wagner started his winemaking career with the establishment of Belle Glos in 2001. Focusing on vineyard designated Pinot noirs, Wagner was inspired by the wines of Kosta Browne and soon built Belle Glos into a 100,000 case production. In 2006, he introduced Meiomi–a unique Pinot noir with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and sometimes Grenache blended in.

By 2015, Meiomi was selling more than half a million cases a year. Wagner cashed in that success by selling the brand to Constellation Brands for $315 million. That sale allowed him to focus on his other brands–including Elouan which was founded in 2014 to highlight Oregon Pinot noir.

The Controversy and Current Rules for Oregon Wines

Elouan Reserve labeled as from the Rogue Valley.

Wagner makes all his Oregon wines (Elouan and the Willametter Journal) in California–primarily at Copper Cane’s Rutherford winery.  In interviews, Wagner has stated his reasoning for trucking the grapes down to California was to maintain quality control.

Compared to federal standards, the rules for labeling wines in Oregon are more restrictive. For instance, to have a wine varietally labeled from Oregon, it must be at least 90% of the stated variety. Federal laws only mandate 75%.

To list an AVA on an Oregon wine, it must contain at least 95% of fruit sourced from that AVA. Crucially, the wine must also be produced solely within the state of Oregon. While the federal standard for AVA designation is only 85%, like Oregon, Federal laws also dictate that a wine using an AVA needs to be “fully finished” in the state containing the AVA. However, it does allow wines to be finished in adjacent states if it labeled under a more generic state designation such as “Oregon”.

While the basic Elouan has Oregon listed as it designation, the reserve wine uses the Rogue Valley AVA. With the wine being “fully finished” in California, this does seem to be a clear violation of labeling usage. Likewise, the case packaging of Elouan makes reference to the Willamette Valley, Rogue and Umpqua Valley. For the Willametter Journal, the grape source is listed as the “Territory of Oregon” which is a fanciful term not currently recognized as an approved AVA. Additionally, Willamette is prominently highlighted in red ink on the label as if it was an AVA designation.

Mega Purple — Mega Illegal In Oregon

The Willametter Journal has the word “Willamette” highlighted on the label in bright red.

Another unique aspect of Oregon wine law noted by Jim Bernau, is the use of additives like Mega Purple, Ultra Red, Purple 8000 and Red 8000. These are illegal in Oregon since they are based on teinturier grapes like Rubired that are not currently grown at all in the state. Essentially, the law views the use of these color and mouthfeel enhancing additives as illegally blending in grapes grown elsewhere.

Wagner and Copper Cane’s representatives have denied using these additives. However, there is wide spread belief in the industry that they are used frequently in California–particularly for inexpensive Pinot noirs.

The Big Questions

In setting up the blind tasting, I wanted to look at three focus points that I’d hope would answer the overarching question of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the branding of the Oregon wine industry.

1.) Does Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stand out when compared to other, more “traditional” Oregon producers?

2.) If his wines do stand out, is this because of a signature winemaking style that overwhelms terroir? While we can’t prove if he is blending in other grape varieties (like he did with Meiomi) or using additives such as Mega Purple, a strong winemaking signature could give credence to the idea that his wines may “confuse” consumers about what Oregon Pinot noirs usually taste like.

3.) And finally, when compared side by side, what wines do people enjoy drinking?

The Tasting Format and Participants

Several of the folks who graciously offered their palates for the blind tasting.

To help with answering questions #2 and #3, I included 3 of Joe Wagner’s California wines in the lineup to go along with the 3 offending Oregon wines. While not part of the controversy, I thought the inclusion of Wagner’s popular California Pinot noirs could shed light on if he has a signature winemaking style that his Oregon wines would also demonstrate.

The Wagner Wines

2017 The Willametter Journal Oregon
2016 Elouan Oregon
2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley
2014 Belle Glos Diaryman Russian River Valley
2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley
2016 Tuli Sonoma County

Included in the tasting were 15 Oregon wines from other producers. Additionally, there was 1 wine from British Columbia–the 2016 Quill from Blue Grouse Estate–that a guest brought. While originally I wanted to limit this to just Wagner and Oregon wines, I thought the Quill could serve as an interesting control. Would it be pegged as an “outsider” or “Wagner wine”? Or would it slipped in seamlessly with the Oregon wines. If so, that could indicate that perhaps the distinctiveness of Oregon wines are not as clear cut.

Oregon wines featured:

2016 Erath Oregon
2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster
2015 Domaine Loubejac Selection de Barriques
2015 Citation, Willamette Valley
2014 Domaine Drouhin, Dundee Hills
2016 Stoller Estate Reserve
2013 Patton Valley Vineyards West Block
2014 Welsh Family Wines Bjornson Vineyards, Eola-Amity Hills
2011 Siltstone Guadalupe Vineyard, Dundee Hills
2016 Marshall Davis, Yamhill Carlton
2014 Noel Vineyard, Willamette Valley
2012 Colene Clemens Margo
2016 Ayoub Pinot Noir Memoirs Dundee Hills
2012 Cristom Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvée Willamette Valley
2009 Coelho Winery Pinot Noir Paciência Willamette Valley

The wines were all served blind with only myself knowing the identities. Since some of the Wagner wines like the Belle Glos and Elouan Reserve had visible wax capsules, I placed those wines along with random Oregon bottles in one of 8 different decanters.

While there was a handful of industry folks from the retail side, the vast majority of the participants were regular wine consumers.

The Results

More traditional Oregon wines like the Stoller Reserve, Patton Valley West Block and Marshall Davis were the runaway favorites of the tasting.

During the tasting, many participants began noticing a trend of some wines being noticeably darker and fruitier–especially compared to other wines. A couple wines even stained glasses in ways that usually aren’t expected of Pinot noir.

The conversation emerged that in order to “Pin the tail on the Wagner”, one needed to look for the least “Pinot-like” wines of the bunch. This would turn out to be a worthwhile strategy that several tasters adopted.

After the tasting I asked the participants to first pick out their favorite bottles. The results were overwhelming for Oregon with the 2016 Stoller Estate Reserve, 2016 Marshall Davis and 2013 Patton Valley West Block getting multiple votes. The BC wine, the Quill, also got some votes as a favorite with many tasters thinking it was an Oregon wine from areas like McMinnville.

But the surprise of the favorite reveal was the inclusion of one of the controversial Oregon Wagner wines–the 2017 Willametter Journal. While the wine was more lush than the others, tasters compared it favorably to warm vintage Oregon Pinot noirs from AVAs like Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity Hills.

Pin the Tail on the Wagners

With the Willametter Journal already revealed, the quest then moved to see if the tasters could identify the 5 remaining Wagner wines. It should be noted that several participants had the Willametter Journal pegged as a Wagner.

Voting on what was a Wagner wine.

In the end, the tasters identified all but one Wagner wine blind. The 2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley was the most obvious Wagner. It was near unanimously picked as being the least “Pinot noir-like” wine in the entire tasting. Several tasting notes alluded to a “root beer soda-like” quality and compared it to other grapes like Syrah and Zinfandel.

The only Wagner wine to escape detection was the 2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley. This one reminded a few tasters of Oregon wines from areas like Dundee and the Eola-Amity Hills.

Most surprising of all were two Oregon wines that were pegged by multiple tasters as Wagner wines–the 2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster made by Jim Bernau and the 2015 Citation made by Howard Rossbach who founded Firesteed Cellars. The 2016 Erath Oregon also got some votes for being a “Wagner wine” as well.

Takeaways

Both the Citation and Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster were popular picks as Wagner wines.

For the most part, Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stood out and tasted noticeably different compared to other Oregon Pinot noirs.

However, it is extremely interesting that the best selling Oregon wines (at least from a volume perspective)–the Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster and Erath–struck so many tasters as potentially being Wagners. While we didn’t have a bottle of Firesteed Cellars (recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates in 2017) in the tasting, the identification of Rossbach’s Citation as a potential Wagner goes along with that trend.

Together, those three wines (WVV, Erath and Firesteed) dominate restaurant wine lists and supermarket retail for Oregon wines. They’re popular wines that appeal to many consumers’ palates.

Likewise, Joe Wagner has built his success on producing wines that strike a cord with consumers–especially at restaurants and supermarket retail. While his style is distinctive, it is a style that sells. It’s also very telling that the Willametter Journal, one of the wines at the heart of the controversy, was selected as a favorite even as it was noted for being very different from the other Oregon wines.

However, overall, the Willametter Journal was an outlier. While wines like Stoller, Patton Valley and Marshall Davis might not sell at the volume of Wagner’s wines (or WVV, Erath and Firesteed for that matter), when tasted side by side–the vast majority of tasters went towards these more traditional-style Oregon Pinots.

Help or Hurt?

The Erath Oregon Pinot noir, now own by Ste Michelle Wine Estates, is made in a style that reminded quite a few tasters of Joe Wagner’s wines.

Now to the question of whether Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines help or hurt the image of Oregon wines among consumers.

The results are a mix-bag.

Does his wines represent Oregon? Definitely not at the top tier.

But at the entry-level? That’s a hazier question.

It’s hard to make the argument that Wagner’s “hurting” Oregon when many of the most popular Oregon wines seem to appeal to the same palate his wines do. These wineries (like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Erath and Citation/Firesteed) may not be using the same techniques as Wagner but, whatever they are doing, they’re making easy-drinking and crowd pleasing wines that hit the same notes as Joe Wagner’s wines.

While I’m sure there are a few Oregon wine producers who would like to throw Joe Wagner into a volcano, I don’t think we can dismiss the likelihood that his wines (or similarly styled Pinots) will be the tipple of choice at the luau.

Regardless of how they’re labelled.

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Geek Notes — New Wine Books For December

I apologize for the delay in getting a new post up. This past week had a double wallop of holidays coupled with a nasty bout with the flu bug. But I’ve turned the corner on that just in time to take a peak at some intriguing new wine book releases.

Inside the Chinese Wine Industry: The Past, Present, and Future of Wine in China by Loren Mayshark (Paperback released on Nov. 7th, 2018)
Photo by Hiart. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

A porcelain wine jug from the early 15th century Ming dynasty.

There is no question that China is already a significant player on the global wine market. Its influence, particularly on pricing, is keenly felt in Bordeaux and Burgundy. As middle class consumption grows, industries like Australia have found the Chinese market to be extremely lucrative for their imports.

But for a country close to the same size as the United States, the potential for domestic production of Chinese wine is immense. The country has already surpassed Argentina, Chile and Australia to be the world’s 5th largest producer of wine.

As an author, Mayshark has a varied background with his previous works tackling the concept of death and the ills of higher education.

While only 174 pages, I suspect this will be a very research heavy book.  Mayshark looks to go deep into the history and culture of alcohol in China. I’m not expecting much terroir and viticultural details but this looks to be a solid intro to a country that is only going to gain prominence on the world’s wine scene.

Port and the Douro, 4th Edition by Richard Mayson (Paperback released on Nov. 26th, 2018)

Mayson’s first edition of Port and the Douro in 1999 quickly became one of the benchmark standards for understanding Port and the often overlooked dry wines of the Douro. Over the years, the text has grown from 320 pages to now 418 pages in the latest volume.

While the Port industry hasn’t quite seen a spike of interest in “Grower’s Port” like we’ve seen in Champagne, there has been more attention paid to vineyards in recent years. While still quite rare, single vineyard or single quinta Ports have been on the rise. In the preface to this latest release, Mayson notes this volume reflects that increased interest.

Though the big shipping houses still dominant, smaller Port producers are gaining traction. Another significant addition to Port and the Douro is an expanded chapter on producer profiles.

Acidity Management in Must and Wine by Volker Schneider and Sarah Troxell. (Hardcover to be released Dec. 17th, 2018)
VA still

Checking volatile acidity using a cash still during my winemaking studies at the Northwest Wine Academy.
If you want to see the still in action, Yakima Valley Community College has a great 9 minute video on it here.

This book is for hard core wine student and folks who are interested in making wine themselves.

When you are looking for winemaking texts, you have two extremes. There are the fairly simple books aimed towards home winemakers that go really light on the science (Jeff Cox’s From Vines to Wines and Jon Iverson’s Home Winemaking Step by Step are two of the better ones) or you have very dense enology textbooks like Roger Boulton’s Principles And Practices Of Winemaking.

There are not many books in the middle with Jamie Goode’s Wine Science being the closest that I’ve found.

Schneider and Troxell’s Acidity Management definitely looks to be more on the textbook side of the equation. However, looking at the pages available on Amazon’s “Look Inside” preview, I’m intrigued at how relatively digestible the science is. It’s tech heavy without being dense. I can see this being a great resource to understand more of the nitty gritty details of winemaking.

Wine Globalization: A New Comparative History edited by Kym Anderson and Vicente Pinilla. (Paperback to be released December 31st, 2018)

This book is high on my radar as I’m gearing up to tackle Unit 1 of the WSET Diploma on The Global Business of Wine. This will be my second go-around with this unit. I realize after my first attempt that a big weakness is how “US-centric” my understanding of the wine industry is.

Featuring over 20 different authors from a wide range of backgrounds, this 576 page anthology truly has a global scope. There are chapters covering traditional markets like France, Germany and the United Kingdom as well as emerging markets in Asia and South America.

Even better, the paperback edition is less than half the price of the hardback or Kindle edition.  I’m definitely going to jump on this before the price changes.

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Viva La Vida New Zealand — The Coldplay of the wine world?

At a recent panel on New Zealand wine held in London, Richard Siddle, a long time editor of several UK wine business publications, called the Land of the Long White Cloud “The Coldplay of the wine world”.

Photo by Zach Klein. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.5

Ouch.

Ostensibly, it was meant to be a compliment with Siddle noting that Kiwi wines are “consistent, popular and in everyone’s collection”.

But liking a country’s wines to a band that has just as much ink devoted to wondering why they’re so loathed as they do positive press, doesn’t exactly scream “Highly Recommended!”.

With compliments like that, who needs insults?

Dad Music and Mom’s Wine

Nylon columnist Anne T. Donahue aptly summed up the criticism of Coldplay following their 2016 Super Bowl performance as a chafing against “dad music”.

I mean, it’s not that Coldplay was incompetent or bad—they were fine. But “fine” isn’t enough, especially when compared to Beyoncé’s “Formation” battle cry, and her dance-off with Bruno Mars. To appear alongside both artists on stage served only to highlight Coldplay’s normality; to draw attention to the overt safeness of a band we once felt so strongly for, which then reminds us of who we used to be. Ultimately, Coldplay has become the musical equivalent of a friend we had in high school: okay, I guess, but someone you don’t have anything in common with anymore. — Anne T. Donahue, 2/12/2016

I have to admit, that “okay, I guess” sentiment really does encapsulate my thoughts on New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. Maybe Siddle is onto something?

Now don’t get me wrong. New Zealand Sauvignon blanc does have many charms. They’re always exceptionally well made and consistent. Virtually regardless of producer or vintage, you can order a Kiwi Sauvignon blanc and know exactly what you’re going to get.

Grapefruit, passion fruit, gooseberry and guava. Check. Lemongrass, green bean and jalapeno. Check. Crisp, lively mouthfeel. Check.

For students taking blind tasting examinations, you pray that a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is included in your flight. In a world of so many exceptions, a classic Marlborough Sauvignon blanc is as much of a sure thing as you can get.

Which makes it boring as hell.

When you get what you want but not what you need

There’s no doubt that since Montana Wines/Brancott Estate introduced to the world Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in the 1970s, it’s been a raging success for the New Zealand wine industry. In 1985, it status was elevated even further when David Hohnen established Cloudy Bay as the first dedicated premium Sauvignon blanc producer in New Zealand.

Soon supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists were awash with the wine of choice for suburban moms everywhere. Led by labels like Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Villa Maria and Oyster Bay, around 86% of all the wine exported out New Zealand in 2017 was Sauvignon blanc.

The flood of grapefruit and gooseberries to the US alone generated around $571 million in sales. Those figures, coupled with still healthy sales in the United Kingdom, pushed the value of New Zealand exports over $1.66 billion NZ dollars in 2017.

Yet the overwhelming dominance of the industry by one grape variety has given many folks, such as Master of Wine Tim Atkin, reason to question if this is “…too much of a good thing?

Arguably the biggest problem with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the influence it has had outside the country. It’s not just the idiotically named Kiwi Cuvée, produced in the Loire Valley by the French company Lacheteau, it’s also the me-too styles that are produced in countries like Chile, South Africa and Australia. Yes, I know that there are different interpretations of New Zealand’s signature grape, but the most successful is the one that someone described as a “bungee jump into a gooseberry bush”. With some residual sweetness, of course. — Tim Atkin, 3/7/2018

The bounty of options of not only authentic New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but also a parade of facsimiles is like skipping over “Clocks” on Spotify only to have the next song be a cover band version.

Is It All Yellow?

Really fantastic Pinot gris from Martinborough. It had some of the zippy acidity and even gooseberry of a NZ Sauvignon blanc with the tree fruits and weight of an Oregon Pinot gris.

Even New Zealand producers are starting to fret about the risks of having all their eggs in one grapefruit basket.

Lucy Shaw of The Drinks Business quotes Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, at that London panel with Siddle “The challenge now is to broaden the story beyond Sauvignon Blanc. We’re a New World country so we need to be open minded, think differently and come up with fresh ideas in order to keep our wines exciting and relevant.”

Google “New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc” and you’ll get a laundry list of wine writers and bloggers craving something different.

Will those cravings eventually extend to consumers who are still driving the thirst for tankers of Sauvignon blanc?

Perhaps.

While right now Pinot noir has a head start in crafting its own identity in New Zealand, it could be the sirens of Chardonnay and Pinot gris that tempt bored Millennials back to the islands.

Tell me your secrets, And ask me your questions

The last chapter of Gibb’s book gives tips about visiting the wine regions of New Zealand. This will be extremely handy next year when the wife & I visit the country either before or after the Wine Media Conference in Australia.

If you’re interested in learning more about New Zealand wine–both Sauvignon blanc and the vast diversity beyond that grape–here are a few of my favorite resources.

The Wines of New Zealand by Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb.

I highlighted this book back in a July edition of Geek Notes and it has certainly lived up to its billing. By far this is the most comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the New Zealand wine industry that I’ve come across. While a lot of the producers and wine recommendations that Gibb make may be hard to find in the US market, she definitely spends considerable time highlighting the diversity of New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc.

UK Wine Show with Chris Scott

Chris Scott is a New Zealand native and wine educator in the UK. Sprinkled among the show’s 570+ episodes are numerous interviews with New Zealand wine producers and experts. A few of my favorites are below.

Harpers Podcast 1 New Zealand wine growers (58:23) — A bit unique compared to the usual UK Wine Show format with Chris interviewing Philip Gregan and 3 growers from different parts of New Zealand.

Allan Johnson on Palliser Estate, Martinborough (30:22) — Palliser is making some fantastic wines including Pinot gris (mentioned above) and Pinot noir that are distributed in the United States.

Martinborough Vineyards with Paul Mason (34:12) — Really great insights about the terroir of the Martinborough region on the North Island and the style of Pinot noir grown here.

Steve Smith Craggy Range on Terroir (20:27) — Steve Smith is a Master of Wine and here he touches on a lot of the unique aspects of New Zealand terroir–including why not every area is suitable for Sauvignon blanc.

Dr John Forrest of Forrest Estate on Riesling (24:12) — While I haven’t had an opportunity yet to try a New Zealand Riesling, it’s clear that there are some special areas in New Zealand (like the Waitaki Valley in the Central Otago) for the grape.

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Geek Notes 10/28/2018 — New Wine Books for November

Let’s take a look at some new wine books coming out next month that are worth geeking out over.

Feel free to also take a gander at the titles profiled in previous months’ Geek Notes for October, September and August. With the holidays approaching, it’s never too early get ideas for great gifts.

Age Gets Better with Wine Third Edition by Richard Baxter. (Hardcover release November 1st, 2018)

Richard Baxter is a plastic surgeon who wrote his first edition of Age Gets Better with Wine back in, honestly, I don’t know.

The oldest date for the 1st edition I could find was in 2007 yet somehow the 2nd edition came out in 2002. My best guess is that the two years were probably switched by Amazon. However, the Google eBooks copy of the 2nd edition dates to 2009. So who knows?

Regardless, quite a bit has changed in our scientific understanding of wine so this 2018 revision will likely have a lot of new material.

This books intrigues me because of the objective approach it appears to take on the many conflicting studies about the role of wine and health. I’ve not had a chance to read either of the two previous editions but I think I’m going to pull the trigger on this one. Blogger Joey Casco of TheWineStalker.net had a great review of the second edition. Describing it as “a wine-science-history geek’s wet dream”, he posted a 2 minute review of the 2nd edition back in 2016.

What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime by Terry Theise. (Hardcover release November 6th, 2018)

Terry Theise is a phenomenal importer who has played a huge role in introducing Americans to the exciting world of Grower Champagne. Additionally, he’s done much to bring attention to the high quality production of small family estates in Germany and Austria.

If you want to learn more about his story, Levi Dalton of I’ll Drink To That! podcast had a fantastic interview with Theise back in 2015 (1:50:22 length).

Pierre Gerbais, a fantastic grower Champagne from the Côte des Bar. The fact that we can find a lot of these gems more easily in the US is because of the efforts of Terry Theise.

Theise’s previous work, Reading between the Wines, was a mix of manifesto and anthology taken from his years of writings for his import catalogs. Now part of the Skurnik portfolio, Theise still regularly writes about vintage years, producer profiles and numerous (often humorous) rants about the world of wine.

Frequently in his writings, Theise expounds on the question that is the title of his current release What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking? What makes a bottle of wine worth the money to procure and the time spent cellaring and savoring? What makes anything worth putting into your body or sharing as part of a moment with loved ones?

Rarely do wine drinkers really stop to think about the answers to those questions. I suspect that Theise’s book will give a lot of food for thought and be a great read.

Good, Better, Best Wines, 2nd Edition: A No-nonsense Guide to Popular Wines by Carolyn Evans Hammond. (Paperback release November 13th, 2018)

This is the updated edition to Hammond’s 2010 release that dived into the world of mass-produced bulk brands and supermarket wines. With the link to the first edition, you can “look inside” and get an idea about her approach and the type of wines being reviewed.

In many ways, I applaud her snob-free approach but I do wonder what audience she is aiming for? Many of the folks who buy the Lindeman’s, Kendall Jackson, Fetzer and Sutter Home wines she reviews aren’t necessarily the folks who purchase wine guides.

While Constellation Brands’ famous Project Genome study of wine buyers found that nearly 1/5th of wine consumers felt “overwhelmed”, these folks were far more likely to seek info on the spot at a retail store versus searching the internet or seeking out a published wine guide.

Likewise, the near third of consumers who fall into the combined categories of “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” are already buying their favorite mass produced wines being profiled here. It doesn’t seem likely that one writer’s opinion that Bulk Brand X is slightly better than Bulk Brand Y will sway many people.

Perhaps the 20% of Image Seekers and 12% of Enthusiasts who are more inclined to look at wine guides will be tempted but often these segments of consumers either eventually settle into “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” or move beyond the $15 & under category this book focuses on.

Good, Better and Less Snobby
Photo by Robbie Belmonte. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

You may not like them or drink them but there is no denying that Gallo has done a masterful job of marketing and selling Barefoot Wines.

However, I do see this book being a huge benefit to students pursuing certifications such as the WSET Diploma level which focuses on the business of wine in Unit 1. Often these students need a bit of an “anti-snobbery” jolt to realize that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t drink the same kind of wines we do.

In our rush to dismiss these wines, we often forget that there are reasons why things like Barefoot, Franzia and Apothic are top selling brands in the US.

I get it. They’re not my cup of tea either and I don’t vaguely hide my personal sentiments about them much on this blog.

But I do seek to understand them. This is why I give wines like Mamamanago, Apothic Brew, Capriccio and the like, just as much research and effort to figure them out as I do for Petrus and Cristal.

I see value in reading Carolyn Evans Hammond’s Good, Better, Best Wines as a window into the world of the “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” and what they are drinking. While I don’t think anyone will ever quite cracked the code of how to convince these drinkers to “trade out”, much less “trade up”, we’ll never come close if we don’t first understand where they’re starting from.

Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing edited by Jay McInerney. (Hardcover release November 13th, 2018)

I started geeking out over this book back in August when I was profiling Amira K. Makansi’s Literary Libations: What to Drink with What You Read.

Though he is the editor for this anthology, Jay McInerney has written several thoroughly entertaining wine books like Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar, A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine and The Juice: Vinous Veritas–not to mention several other highly acclaimed works outside of wine.

He does contribute a chapter to Wine Reads which includes over 20 pieces of fiction and non-fiction writings about wine. Other writers in the work includes Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame), A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker, an excerpt from Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, Jancis Robinson and more.

Just like with Makansi’s book, I can see this being the perfect companion for long flights or train rides.

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Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets?

This morning wine writer Jamie Goode offered some sage advice to wine regions across the globe.

I’m not sure what prompted this particular dictum but reading it reminded me of Brand Australia’s wine marketing woes. People got so use to seeing cheap, cheerful “critter wine” flooding the market from down under that the idea of Australia making premium, high-quality wine almost became a non-entity.

Which kind of puts a damper on the 2400+ Australian wineries not named Yellow Tail, Jacob’s Creek, Lindeman, Black Opal or Wolf Blass, doesn’t it?

In the huge shadow of the “Yellow Tail” effect, Australian wines today only command around 1% of the premium export market in the US. In contrast, 95% of Australian wines in the US retail for around $8 per bottle.

And both numbers may be shrinking.

While Australia is seeing some positive growth in export value to markets in Asia and Canada, it was recently announced that exports to the US has declined by $27 million in value.

It seems that Americans are getting a bit bored of the critters. The novelty of criminals has piqued some interest but that too will inevitably wane. Plus, gimmick labels like 19 Crimes certainly aren’t doing much to burnish the image of Australian wine for consumers.

Catch Up Marketing?

In response to the decline, the trade organization Wine Australia has invested $4.2 million to promote premium Australian wines.  They’re spending a good chunk of that money rehabbing the image of Australia wines abroad.

This past July, they hosted several Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine, wine buyers and media personalities at Lake Tahoe for an event called Australia Decanted. Featuring high-quality producers like Tyrrells, Penfolds, Vasse Felix, Clonakilla, Yalumba, John Duval Wines and Shaw & Smith Wines, the conference highlighted the people and terroir that often get overlooked by American consumers.

Next October, the Wine Bloggers Conference will be in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales–the first time the conference has been held outside of North America. Undoubtedly, a huge focus of that conference will be giving bloggers and other wine industry folks a chance to experience the world of Australian wines beyond Riverland and Riverina.

Are We Repeating The Same Mistake In Washington?

Here in Washington State, Jamie Goode’s warning is also pretty timely. Recently the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) published the “Top 10 Table Wine Brands” in the US by dollars.

You have the usual suspects of bulk California supermarket brands (and Yellow Tail, of course) but look at who is rounding out the top 10 with almost $177 million in sales.

Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Now being a bit of a Washington State-homer, I will be quick to point out something important. The quality of CSM wines are head and shoulders above the Barefoot, Sutter Home, Franzia and Yellow Tails of the world. While it is clear that the owners of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are ambitious about expanding their portfolio with new labels and acquisitions, I take comfort in knowing that we’ll likely never see a bourbon barrel-age or cold brew hybrid wine coming out of Woodinville anytime soon.

In some ways, you could say that Chateau Ste. Michelle’s inclusion on this list is a good thing. Could this be a glimmer of hope that more Americans are drinking just a little bit better?

Perhaps. But there is a lot about this chart that gives reasons for pause.

Who Writes The Narrative Of “Brand Washington”?

Even if the quality of their wines are higher than entry-level wines from California, Australia and elsewhere, the overwhelming dominance of CSM wines in distribution still means that the banner of “Brand Washington” is being led by our entry-level wines.

Walk into any supermarket and look for Washington wine with multiple facings on the shelf. While Constellation’s Hogue or Gallo’s Covey Run ($5-6) might be there, chances are you will find only Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Valley ($6-10) label.

Or you may find one of CSM’s many, many, many sister brands like Columbia Crest Two Vines ($5-6), Grand Estates ($7-10), 14 Hands ($7-10), Snoqualmie ($6-8), Red Diamond ($6-8) or their 1.5L bulk brand Stimson Lane ($9-10).

Outside of Washington State, these may be the only Washington wines that consumers are exposed to–the state’s cheapest. Even within Washington, it’s near impossible to go into a grocery store or look at a wine list without being overwhelmed with “choices” of multiple different Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brands.

Again, the quality of these wines are undoubtedly higher than Apothic or Menage a Trois. However, the narrative of “Brand Washington” being told to consumers is still being written by just one company–and with its cheapest wines.

Has Trickle Up Marketing Ever Worked?

Even if the narrative is much more “impressive” and slightly less cheap than the story of Yellow Tail or other entry-level wines that Jamie Goode is warning about, there is still risk to the Washington State wine industry in letting the entire branding of the state be made by one dominant brand.

Has there ever been a wine region where “Trickle Up” marketing has worked? Has an industry that first introduced itself to consumers with their lowest, entry-level wine ever been able to successfully rise above that initial perception?

Inflation aside, was Napa Valley ever known for its $6-10 wines? Oregon? Bordeaux? Burgundy?

It’s almost like we’re expecting an upside down “halo effect”.  We’re hoping that our bottom priced wines “trickle up” and lead the way. When what we should be doing is having our top quality, premium wines dictate our narrative to consumers

Again, has that ever worked?

Maybe Washington State will be the one to break the mold. If Chateau Ste. Michelle is our “bottom”, that is certainly a step above many other regions.

But there is a lesson we should learn from the pratfalls of other wine industries.  Once the die of your brand has been cast in the minds of consumers, it’s really hard to recast.

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The Kids Will Probably Be Alright — Looking at Generation Z Trends

Yesterday, Wine Industry Insight posted an interesting chart taken from the Wall Street Journal about risk behavior among Generation Z high schoolers.

charts showing generation z risk behaviors

Screenshot from Wine Industry Insight 10/18/2018 sourced from the Wall Street Journal article “Gen Z Is Coming to Your Office. Get Ready to Adapt.” 9/6/2018

On the surface, this looks great. Members of Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010, report that many have not tried alcohol, sex or gotten a driver’s license while in high school.  Of course, this is all “self-reported”–by teenagers, no less. So how much stock do we want to put in this? I know back in high school I wasn’t keen to divulge to strange adults everything I was up to.

The Wall Street Journal is extrapolating that Generation Z is showing itself to be highly risk-averse.  Wine Industry Insight takes that a step further. They speculates that because of this, Gen Z might be “poor prospects” for the beverage industry.

What?

Since the majority of Generation Z are not yet legal drinking age, there isn’t much data on their alcohol consumption. There certainly are the breathless headlines touting that these 8 to 23 years olds are embracing teetotalism and expect to be more sober than Millennials who are now in their late 20s and 30s complete with college debt, jobs, mortgages and families.

Photo by Johann Snyman. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Many cities are seeing less drivers overall and more people choosing alternative transportation like bicycling. Why would we not assume that Generation Z is a part of this change?

I’m glad the kids aren’t spiking their kool-aid with Stoli and Ketel One while having risky sex.

But I do think it is way too early to be sounding the alarm about the prospects of Generation Z. I’m mean, who knows if the driver’s license thing is even related to “risk aversion”. Could this be more about environmental conscience and using public transportation?

These kids are still figuring out who they are as people and a generation. The picture of their prospects is far from clear.

Didn’t we learn this with my generation?

In one of my older wine business books, Wine Marketing: A Practical Guide by C. Michael Hall and Richard Mitchell (2007), the thinking back then was that Millennials would follow a similar path as Baby Boomers with their wine consumption and buying habits.

While Millennials have followed Boomers in liking to drink a lot of wine, we definitely “reinvented” the game with our love of unique varieties and styles as well as shunning of many of the old standbys of status and critic scores. We also tend to be more diverse than Boomers in our alcoholic tastes beyond just wine as I noted in my recent post about the wine industry’s upcoming reckoning with Millennials.

Does Risk Aversion Predict Future Alcohol Trends?

It seems like this is the heart of Wine Industry Insight‘s view about the poor prospects of Generation Z. Now I fully acknowledge that Lewis Perdue has way more experience and insight in this segment than I will ever hope to achieve. But this seems like such an odd correlation—especially since Millennials, ourselves, are notoriously “risk averse” especially with our finances.

Diving back into my wine business books, I tried to find more details about the connection between risk aversion and alcohol consumption. The only written commentary seemed to focus on how willing consumers are to stray from tried and true brands and varieties versus branching out to try new things.

Searching online there are studies comparing alcohol demand and risk preference with a lot of these noting that economic factors and income play a role as well. Whatever connection there is between risk & alcohol–it’s clear that it’s extremely multi-faceted.

Maybe Generation Z Wants More Than Getting Drunk and Laid?

Business Insider’s noted in a February 2018 article that 16 to 22 year olds surveyed “don’t think drinking is that cool anymore.” I think that is very telling and actually really good for the wine industry–at least the quality over quantity minded segment.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Would it really be a bad thing if Generation Z skipped the whole “White Zin/Pink Moscato” phase?

There’s nothing cool or interesting about drinking just to get drunk. Alcohol, like food, is meant to compliment life. Not only is it a social lubricant but it is a bridge to history and culture. That’s hard to appreciate hammered. It may have taken Millennials, Generation X and Boomers longer to realize it but globally we are seeing trends where consumers across the board are “drinking less, but better.”

It’s clear that Generation Z, like Millennials, are more value and economic conscience. We don’t have a lot of money, so we want to get more out of it. Why waste hard earn cash just to get wasted?

Yet, that doesn’t mean that alcohol has to be avoided. Being risk-averse to wasting money on silly expenditures doesn’t mean the door is shut on wine, beer and liquor being part of a normal, vibrant lifestyle.

It just means that you have to get something more from the experience. More than perhaps what big brand, mass-produced corporations have been used to delivering.

Meaningful Consumption

Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a generation where meaningful consumption takes over from mindless consumption. You can make the same connection when it comes to sex and relationships. Many of us have to learn it the hard way that no amount of physical contact can replace the depth of a meaningful touch from someone you care about.

Photo by Stilfehler. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Top sheets really are pretty useless.

I’m not going to say that I can predict how Generation Z is going to turn out and what impact they will have on the beverage industry. But I honestly don’t see anything in these very early data points suggest that the industry, as a whole, needs to worry. Maybe the big mega-corps but they already need to shake things up or the Millennial world-killers will do them in like we’ve apparently done to mayonnaise, napkins and top sheets on beds.

If anything, I feel optimistic hoping that the kids today are starting out a little wiser and world weary than my generation and others before. Life is too short to waste time on silly things. Everything we bring in to our lives, and everything we consume, should add richness and value to it.

If the kids are catching on to that a little sooner than most, good for them.

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The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials

Wine Industry Insight has a great chart showing the growth of spirits among Millennial drinkers. Beer is still doing pretty well.

http://wineindustryinsight.com/?p=93406

From Wine Industry Insights, October 5th 2018

But look at that little straggler there towards the end. The one holding the tiny 18% preference of Millennial drinkers–after declining 4% from 2017.

We see you wine. We see you.

Though apparently we aren’t drinking you–as the “share of throat” (basically share of the beverage market) for wine is barely a fifth of what Millennials consume.

This is something that the wine industry is going to have to deal with.

Right now Baby Boomers and Generation X still spend a lot on wine but eventually the wine industry’s success is going to depend on Millennials choosing wine over other drinks.

Wineries are going to have figure out how not to bore Millennials to tears with their offerings and marketing.

This is why I harp on the foolishness of producers and wine regions focusing on “the old guard” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc.

These things have been done before, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

I get it. Those grapes certainly rule the market right now. But it’s incredibly easy to get bored of them and have your wine get lost in the crowd. Once you’ve had one Cab, it often feels like you’ve had them all.

Millennials seek variety and excitement.

And we haven’t even gotten to the Mezcal boom yet.

The diversity of the craft beer movement with all its different styles struck a great cord with millennials that likely won’t wane. Spirits are offering a world of new cocktails to explore. Even categories like whiskey up the excitement factor with different mash bills, aging regiments and cask finishing.

To catch up, the wine world is resorting to gimmicks like blue wine, bourbon & tequila barrel aging, coffee wine, silly augmented reality labels, etc.

It’s basically putting lipstick on a pig. Yeah, that will work a time or two but even the best liquid matte fades.

Yet we already have the answer to the “boredom factor” right in front of us and scattered across the globe. How about highlighting the beautiful wealth of interesting grape varieties, terroir and unique people with stories to tell?

Vermentino! Picpoul! Cabernet Franc! Chenin blanc! Valdiguié! Roussanne! Mourvèdre! Sangiovese! Pinot Gouges! Siegerrebe! Malbec! Cinsault! Counoise! Grenache!

I could go on. The point is that we don’t have to fall back on the same ole, same ole. Instead of looking back at the old guards and standbys of yesterday, we should be moving forward and exploring the promising potential of tomorrow’s wines.

Otherwise, the wine industry is going to keep losing shares of a lot throats.

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